Here's a quick crush test to apply to your business, based on many things that went wrong in mine.
Imagine you are in a control room observing multiple screens from surveillance cameras, each focused on different aspects of your business. One shows how satisfied your customers are, another shows employee morale and the next one shows the state of your marketing, finance, legal and so on.
Now imagine those screens going black one by one. That's what happened in my business in the last two months.
One by one, all essential parts started crumbling: My website went down and my emails stopped sending and receiving (as a PR agency, the ability to chat with our press contacts pretty much IS the business). Then my Instagram account was impersonated. A fake account with my face on it started sending some dodgy offers to my contacts. Then PayPal decided to freeze my account and block access to all the funds I've got there. The final nail in the coffin was the freezing of our business bank account, preventing us from receiving funds. Ta da!
I'm not telling you this to complain, I'm just painting the picture and hoping it will get you thinking about what would you do if the same thing (or at least one of them) happened to you. While we occupy our minds with the next big marketing ideas and product development, one serious crack in the foundation can make a whole business go extinct in a matter of days.
And while some of the issues are still ongoing, here are the lessons I've learned.
Relationships are the main asset
When my emails went down I suddenly began receiving … texts. No, not WhatsApp messages, but actual texts from contacts abroad. Apparently, people who are really committed to speaking to you. Amidst all the chaos this was a breath of fresh air: Relationships I've built are actually stronger than technology.
Do you know the concept of "adding value" to your business partnerships? Here's the ultimate test to see if it's working: Imagine your usual communication channel is down. Who would make an extra effort to find you either way? A hint: Those are the people who feel they are benefitting the most from this relationship. I personally believe they are one of the most undervalued assets in a business.
The same goes for your brand: Who in your audience would notice if you stopped posting on social media? Who'd write to check on you if they haven't heard from you in a while? Or new people who would discover you through other channels and find a way to reach out when your website is down? While my website and Instagram were nonexistent, people found me through articles and podcast interviews I've done in the past and reached out via LinkedIn and personal email.
We rely on technology, yet often, even the most secure solution fails us. If you are in it to stay, build relationships and a brand that outlasts any technology that you are using to build it.
Sometimes in business, you'll need to show your teeth
A bit of a wolf's grin might be a standard operating procedure for some entrepreneurs, but it was a completely new experience for me. I came to business from journalism, where likability and politeness used to get me through many closed doors. It's no surprise that it was my standard operating procedure in business.
Here is what happened recently. My bank account was blocked and the company was running out of cash and unable to receive funds. Sixty days of beating around the bush and keeping polite and cheerful conversations with bank reps had gotten me nowhere. Salaries were due in two days. Seeing my desperation, a friend reminded me that my company was, after all, a PR agency. "Tell them you're going to the press with a story about five Ukrainian women who won't get paid this month because of them." That seemed low. But also, it was true. So I asked my inner polite girl to wait outside, I sent an angry tweet to the bank, threatening them with press attention.
I will tell you this much: It worked. A polite girl got nothing but "our team is working on it" in the last two months. A grinning wolf got her business account unblocked in less than an hour. I'm not suggesting that's how I'm planning to do business now, but let's say there is a new tool in the toolbox and the confidence that when you have something worth fighting for, there is no shame in using it.
How long can the business run without you?
For two whole months, I've been dealing with the unexpected. For two months, I had to prioritize make-or-break issues over business as usual. That meant less attention from me to my team, my leads and even my clients. We've made it through two months, but I'm painfully aware that another month without me, as the founder, would most likely break us.
It also showed me the weakest points in my business. Client relationships are strong. The team is well trained but is sometimes lacking independence, the sales process is weak and largely depends on me. Another great test is imagining what would happen if you had to be absent from your usual processes for one month, two or three months. What would break first? How fast would it break? Now that most of the storm has passed, I know exactly where to focus my attention.
You might need more baskets than eggs
One primary server, one primary payment processor and one primary bank to keep the money. What else does a small business need? Before these events, I'd rather spend time brainstorming creatives for a client or polishing a marketing campaign. Today, I'm ready to spend more energy securing the company against unlikely situations. Because when customers have no website to go to see my services, or when I can't receive payments, no marketing campaign or creatives are relevant.
I feel a bit like an overly-cautious grandma that would put her old pearls into a chest with three security locks, and then hide the chest at the back of the closet "just in case." My business might be small at the moment, but the responsibility I have towards the clients and the team is no different. If three security locks (or backup servers) is what it takes to keep grandma asleep at night, then so be it.
Image Credit: Image by Chuk Yong from Pixabay
Taking the time to read every day can boost your leadership skills and your business.
Many years ago, during my first startup experience, my co-founder and I coined the term "hedgehog mode" in reference to the way we worked while building the company. The problem was no one else knew what it meant. When we brought in new team members or spoke to investors, we had to explain our methodology all over again.
Years later, Eric Ries wrote "The Lean Startup" and gave a universal definition to a number of the strategies we had been using for years. Suddenly, our team had an easier way to create a shared language that deepened our communication, and we gained even more insights into our strategies than we'd had before.
Since then, by reading business-centric books and more, I have greatly benefitted by utilizing the ideas and definitions in them to accurately describe an activity or practice that I felt was important for everyone on my team to contemplate. With this shared language, we were better able to create a vision for our future while giving us all hope we could reach these new goals. All of this was because I decided to pick up a book that looked interesting.
The more I continued to read, the more I realized how essential frequent reading is to building a business with a strong team. It expands your vocabulary, opens your mind to new pathways and drives inspiration and innovation. And just like eating healthy or working out, its effects are most meaningful when we do it consistently.
1. Build a shared lexicon
When we're children, we learn new vocabulary through the stories our parents read aloud to us at night. And though the books we read in adulthood may be a bit more sophisticated, their purpose is essentially the same. By reading every day, we are introduced to new vocabulary, including words that may label something we have already been doing (such as the "lean startup movement" I mentioned) or have long been curious about. The more vocabulary we learn, the better our communication will be, allowing us to easily network and engage with our coworkers.
You can pass these lessons on to your team, too. Emphasize learning and create a shared lexicon by offering to buy certain books for team members and shipping them directly to their homes. Using books on specific topics of interest is a great way to create a shared understanding of your goals without spending hours telling each person individually.
Communicating effectively is a crucial skill for all leaders, and reading is one of the most effective ways to expand your Rolodex of communication skills.
2. Foster a growth mindset
A reader is always willing to open their mind to the ideas of others — otherwise, they wouldn't read. And this same openness is present in those with a growth mindset.
A growth mindset is one of the first things I look for when hiring new employees. I am almost always going to hire a person who may know less about the job but displays a willingness to grow, learn and put in the work over a more experienced but pompous candidate. Reading inherently fosters a growth mindset. You are exposed to new ideas and new ways of doing things with every book you pick up — some you will agree with, and some you may not. Regardless, what matters is that we stay humble and open to the fact that there will always be people who know more than us about a particular topic or, at the very least, have a new perspective on it.
Furthermore, when we read, our unconscious mind naturally chews on the material we put in our brain, even when we aren't actively reading or even thinking about the content itself. Once we get into the growth-based mindset and are feeding our minds with new and exciting information, our brains take off, leading to creative problem-solving and far-reaching growth.
3. Unlock inspiration
Reading can bring us back to that childlike sense of discovery and inspiration — the belief that superheroes just might be real, Santa Claus does exist and magic is possible. Regardless of where you stand on superheroes, inspiration and imagination are key to business, spurring creativity and facilitating progress toward our goals. And when we're searching for inspiration, there is no better place to look than a book.
When we read about how someone has persevered through personal struggle, we are inspired to continue on ourselves. Or, when a CEO details their rise to the top, we may gain new insight into how to solve problems in our own business. There is nothing new under the sun, and if there is something you are working on or struggling with, the chances are that someone else has struggled with it, too — they may have even written a whole book about it. By reading about how others have gone about paths similar to our own, we may even be able to avoid costly mistakes down the line.
Whether you are growing a business, building a team or product, or developing a new skill, reading is a great way to unlock ideas and build excitement about the potential for you or your team to accomplish your goals.
How to begin
You may think, "I don't have time to read every day." And though this may sound counter to everything I've just written, you don't have to — at least, you don't at first. Like building any new habit, begin by setting small manageable goals. Read books that are genuinely interesting to you and commit to reading one chapter first thing in the morning or before you go to bed a few nights a week. If a book isn't grabbing your attention, put it aside and try something else. Once you get into the habit and start reaping its rewards, you will find yourself reading more and more, eager to gulp up every new insight you can.
Our first-grade teachers weren't lying when they impressed upon us how essential reading is to our development. But somewhere along the way, with the hustle and bustle that comes with life in business, we put that advice aside. If we can make space for even 20 minutes of reading per day, the effects can be profound. A commitment to reading improves communication, a willingness to grow and a sense of inspiration — and when you combine all three, you will find that you and your team will become unstoppable.
Image Credit: Photo by Pixabay
Whether it's with investors, customers or employees, tough conversations in business are inevitable. Learning to handle these conversations well can often make or break a business, so here are some ways to tackle those hard moments whenever they come along.
I would love to be able to tell you that as soon as you hang out your shingle or put your product on the market, everything will go smooth as silk. But I can't lie to you — it probably isn't going to happen.
When everything hits the fan, you're often forced to have some difficult conversations, whether it's with investors, employees or customers. Learning to handle these conversations well can often make or break a business so it's a skill worth paying attention to.
I don't know about you, but confrontation is not my strong suit and it's not my favorite thing to do. But I've learned some keys that help me when those inevitable uncomfortable conversations have to happen.
When you avoid having a tough conversation that you need to have, the situation just festers — and often spreads. Whether it's an employee who needs to be fired or an investor who needs to hear some bad news, better to get it done quickly, like ripping off a Band-Aid. If you procrastinate, you'll just waste your time and energy agonizing over it.
That said, do not go into a difficult interaction while you're still reacting and hyper-emotional. If you're still angry or panicked about the situation, give yourself time to get calm and centered. Take the emotion out of it so you have a better chance of communicating clearly and finding solutions. Don't let your emotional reactions add more stress to the problem in front of you. This is especially important if your "conversation" will be in writing. An email or letter or text sent in anger never turns out well.
Don't ignore the problem
A friend of mine had a boss who used to say, "If you ignore it, odds are that it will go away." He was wrong most of the time. Your customers and clients will trust you so much more if you let them know the ugly truth: The opposing side reneged on their settlement agreement. Their daughter didn't get the lead in the dance recital. The product they ordered won't come in until next year. The construction costs came in at twice their budget. Just pick up the phone and tell them what's going on. If they're mad or upset, deal with it. Be calm and empathetic. Then, if you need to, talk them off the cliff. Even if you don't have a brilliant solution for the difficulty, they deserve to know where they stand.
This is doubly true for issues with employees. If you're not happy with their work but don't let them know, there's no way they can fix it. Don't tippy toe around the issue. Let them know what's not working so they have a chance of succeeding with you.
Say what really needs to be said
Before you enter a tough conversation, take a few moments to think about what's really important to say and what isn't. Start by thinking about your ultimate goal for the conversation. Do you want an employee or a contractor to make some changes? Are you trying to maintain the trust and relationship of your client? What do you really need to say to reach that goal?
Let's say you're disappointed by a contractor's performance. You should bring up a few concrete examples of what isn't working so they are clear about it, but you don't need to mention every tiny gripe you have about them. Or let's say you can't complete a client's assignment on time. They don't need to know every detail of your very busy workload. They just need to know that a) you'll miss the deadline, b) when you will be able to meet your commitment and c) what you're doing to make sure it doesn't happen again.
The "sandwich conversation" is a communication technique that helps relieve some of the tension and defensiveness that comes up in tough conversations. It lets the other person know that you are not there to go to war but to find solutions. In a sandwich conversation, you sandwich the difficult message in between two more positive statements. For example, if you have an employee who shows up for work late, it might go something like: "Hey, I'm really impressed with the job you're doing for our marketing campaign. One thing I'd really appreciate from you is to show up on time for our weekly meetings. That way, you won't miss anything that we cover, and we'll be able to finish our meetings sooner."
Another example: What if a client isn't following through on documents they're supposed to give you or "homework" you assign? "I'm really eager to work with you and I believe in your project. And I'd really appreciate it if you could get me the XYZ we agreed to. That way, I'll be able to offer you the quality you deserve from me."
Always be respectful
The person you're firing may not have done a good job, but it's unlikely that they screwed up intentionally. The customer reading you the riot act about a defective product they received might have other pressures that are grinding at them. You just don't know. Treat the other person as you would wish to be treated if roles were reversed.
Part of respect is listening to the other person's point of view. This means listening to understand, not listening so you can argue your point. When someone feels respected and that they've been heard, they're much more likely to show you respect and listen in return. It sets a tone that leads to finding solutions, rather than adding fuel to the fire. Even if you end up parting ways, by staying respectful, you haven't burned any bridges you might need in the future.
By facing those difficult conversations in a timely way, saying only what really needs to be said, staying respectful and sandwiching, you'll find that your difficult conversations are not only less difficult, they'll also turn out to be much more productive.
As the co-founder of NLX, a conversational Artificial Intelligence company, I have a people-focused/solution-oriented approach.
There's a tendency to glorify AI and make it sound like it's going to take over the world. NLX was born in 2018 with the mission of helping companies transform customer contact into personalized self-service.
Along the way, I've learned that means to be a people-first leader, to always take the human approach with your products and customers.
Here's what that means...
Designing people-centric products
When it comes to a product or service-related problem, the issue is not always your ability to solve it, but the utility of a fix.
We're organizing and simplifying AI. We want to make it easy for non-technical clients to be able to take charge and build applications their users truly need. People like feeling empowered.
Furthermore, we've made the conscious choice to not build our own conversational AI model, because there are multi-trillion dollar companies heavily invested in doing just that. Instead, we ask ourselves: "How do you manage content in tens of languages while streamlining integration for better automation?".
What drove products five years ago is coming to pass and putting technologies up against each other may not provide solutions. This is why, for instance, we don't lock in unhappy customers in multi-year contracts and use pay-as-you-go pricing instead of the tiered pricing that is the norm.
Stick to human-oriented design and solutions. It will help you focus on what's truly important as you build your products and that will set you apart.
Creating value-driven cultures
As I was reflecting on the past jobs, I realized that people left for three reasons: A) They weren't paid well, B) They didn't feel respected, and C) They didn't have engaging work to do.
In building NLX's culture, we made it a point to not make those mistakes and the results have been extraordinary. To an external investor, perhaps saving a few thousand dollars by letting a resource leave might sound right, but as a founder, only you can know the real cost of losing a great colleague.
Your team imbibing and embracing the values you encourage will carry the day. Those values will extend to your customers through the experiences that are created for them.
Building customer-oriented companies
Instead of thinking about what technology you can offer your customers today, focus on their experience and work backward from the ideal solution. Doing this allows you to break the pattern of what the status quo provides. It helps you truly innovate on behalf of the end-user, your customer, your platform and your industry.
What we've learned is that customers and companies want solutions. And when they're struggling with a problem, telling them about a new tool or the latest transcription feature may not be the same thing as actually giving them a solution.
We found that one of the top three reasons people call call centers is to reset passwords. Everyone assumes this is easy to do on a website and, yet, customers always struggle because it's hard to automate resets over voice instruction, (i.e., the customer needs to go "uppercase "A', lowercase "b', zero "0'," etc.).
It's the same with automating airline bookings. My last name is Papancea and, like me, there are millions of people out there with non-regular-sounding last names. Going with the status quo of the tech today in such cases does not work. It's hard to capture last names and booking codes such that they are transcribed correctly. In building solutions for such use cases, we decide to work backward. If that mean building multi-modal capabilities to transcend channels and go beyond the boundaries of traditional automation? We do it.
If you pay attention to your metrics and listen to your customers, they will tell you what they really want. Visualize an ideal, or a delightful way in which a user would like a problem solved, and then build them an automated solution.
It's easy to get excited when you get a big customer and sad when opportunities don't pan out. The emotional oscillation can get unhealthy, so know your value and stay steady. Celebrate the smallest milestones, but also cherish things that don't work out. They always show you new paths to explore.
Image Credit: Photo by Tara Winstead - Pexels.com
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